How The ‘Smart Asian’ Stereotype Put My Friend in Jail
August 28, 2017
Everyone knows that these tired tropes are full of shit — everyone but my friend Sohee. Unfortunately, she didn’t learn her lesson until it landed her in prison.
Sohee had a traditional Asian upbringing. Her parents immigrated from Busan, South Korea in search of employment and the best education for their children. Sohee and I met on accident, we literally ran into each other on the first day of college, and we’ve been friends ever since.
The problem with being friends with an Asian girl, as a black woman, was that people automatically assumed she was the smarter one. I was always a nerd with stellar grades, but I never really had to study. My parents just wanted me to enjoy myself and they never pressured me to maintain perfect grades. I got outstanding grades because I genuinely liked being smart, but even if I slipped, my parents didn’t punish me.
Sohee’s parents were the opposite. Despite their good intentions, Sohee’s parent’s suffocated her with overwhelming pressure to succeed in school. Her father was a financial advisor for top-tier company, and his coworkers always commented on the fact that Sohee’s father was the only Asian man they knew who didn’t have a child in the medical or financial field. Mocked at work by racist White coworkers for having a “failed Asian child,” her father took his frustrations out on her.
Sohee and I had pre-calculus together, and that’s where reality slapped us in the face.
The class was difficult, and as we advanced into the school year I maintained straight A’s while Sohee started to slip. Every time our professor handed back tests he expressed his disappointment in her. He even scheduled a meeting with Sohee where he discussed his shock on how I, a black Muslim female nobody, was the ace of the class instead of her, a Korean woman with “good breeding.” He expected more from Sohee because he thought Asians were naturally intelligent.
His slick comments didn’t really bother me, but his words, along with her father’s constant pressure, echoed in Sohee’s mind.
It all came to my attention when we got our grade reports after our mid-final. I couldn’t wait to go home and show my parents my straight A’s. When Sohee got her report, she was petrified. She had an 86 in pre-calculus. I thought it was great, but she warned me her parents would not be as excited. She was right.
I accompanied her home and stepped into a warzone. Her father was furious, shouting that he had raised a failure and that he never wanted her to go out again so she could spend her free time studying. I could only stand there as he turned on me, shouting that he wanted my “nigger terrorist self”, more words he learned from his White coworkers, out of his house. So I left.
And as soon as I stepped outside I was harassed and verbally assaulted by all the Asians in the community. It seemed everyone thought I was purposely trying to make them look bad by being smarter than them. I never went home with her again.
Months passed and I could see the toll the constant pressure and harassment was taking on Sohee. She was afraid to go home, but every day she studied more and more, barely taking time to sleep. She stopped talking to me, which I assume that was the work of her father. And even though I was angry at him for taking my friend away, I could definitely understand him.
He had cracked under pressure from the people at his job. They believed in the stereotype so strongly that they openly mocked someone who strayed from it, not realizing the damage it was doing. And he, in turn, started believing in the stereotype and ended up feeling like a failure for not raising his daughter right. It was understandable. But I still hated him for it.
Sohee started taking drugs a few weeks before our final. She never told me but I caught her smoking weed in the gym. I know now I should’ve confronted her, especially when I saw the sleeping pills and Adderall in her purse, but at the time, I didn’t know what to do. I only helplessly watched as she destroyed her life over not being able to meet some dumb stereotypical expectations.
A few days after the final, our grades were posted. I completed the class with a 92. Sohee finished with an 87.
I heard she had a big fight with her parents that night. Her father only wanted her to bring home A’s and he was angry that she wasn’t taking her grades as seriously as she should have. He threw her out.
She went to a frat party that night and reconnected with the guy supplying her with drugs, the head of the fraternity named Dan. She drove out around at 2:00 a.m. high on drugs, with a few kilos of cocaine in her passenger seat, along with a seemingly endless supply of sleeping pills. A cop pulled her over for speeding past a stop sign and arrested her. She was just three blocks from my house.
She was going to kill herself that night, she told me later. She was going to swallow a handful of pills and never wake up again. Her community and parents were ashamed of her. She had no friends. And she was a failure at life. She truly believed she was a failure because she didn’t get an A. All because of some dumb stereotype.
I should’ve been there for her. And I wasn’t. But I’m here for her recovery and I will say this.
Stereotyping can be harmful when it’s not used in jest. Sohee’s life is a perfect example of how stereotyping can ruin someone forever.
Keep that in mind the next time you make fun of an Asian for not being smart.
Sohee is currently serving a five year sentence. She’ll be eligible for parole next year.
Her father won’t be showing up on her behalf.
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